I served as executive director of Meeting Waters YMCA (MWYMCA) from October 1998 through May 2017. Alongside several iterations of our Board of Directors, I led a decade’s-long effort to give away our building at 66 Atkinson Street in Bellows Falls to an organization or initiative that would allow for it to continue to be a benefit to the community.
As the organization’s staff leader for 18-1/2 of its 126 years, I am speaking up now because I worry about the damage the building situation could cause to MWYMCA’s vital services to the community in the future.
The first discussion about giving the building to another organization took place at a meeting of MWYMCA’s Board of Directors Jan. 17, 2006. The Rockingham School Board proposed to take down the building and use the site to make up for parking spaces that would be lost with the expansion of the school. After a few months of deliberation, the MWYMCA Board voted to decline that.
After that, the board ramped up its efforts to give the building away. MWYMCA is a “Y Without Walls” – its programming takes place in the communities it serves and at its Y Day Camp facility in Springfield in the summers. The entire building at 66 Atkinson St. had served only as the offices for its three full-time employees since 2013. The budget of our small nonprofit – one of the smallest of the 2,700 YMCAs in America – could not support the $80,000 to $100,000 in estimated repair costs, including a new fire suppression system as the current one was outdated and could no longer be serviced. We were using 5% of the space. Heating oil costs alone approached $20,000 per year. It made no sense to divert dollars from financial support of the Rockingham area families MWYMCA serves year-round with enriching out-of-school care to maintain a facility we did not need. Giving the facility away to a community-based organization that could invest in the renovations was our most-viable option.
After the decision in 2006 to not give the building away to make it a parking lot, the board and I started to promote the facility to all sorts of organizations that might have been willing to bring it back to life for the benefit of the community. In 2014, local citizens and philanthropists created the Bellows Falls Cultural Preservation Project for the sole purpose of restoring the facility. Their vision was very exciting to us. We waited for them to get their 501(c)(3) approval from the IRS and state. Once they got this, they set up a GoFundMe page and wrote grants to fund the renovation of the building while lawyers for both organizations drafted a purchase and sale agreement. It was at this time that MWYMCA’s three full-time employees moved to a new office in downtown Bellow Falls.
The Commons wrote a front-page story about the purchase April 15, 2015… a bit prematurely, it turns out. The day of the closing, the other organization’s Board Chair told me his group had changed their mind and were going to dissolve the nonprofit and give back all of the donations and grants. I was gutted. We had a good faith agreement for a year. We stopped our outreach during that time feeling we had found a fantastic partner to whom to pass on our historic building.
Christopher Glennon is the only other person or organization that approached us after that. He presented a sound proposal to our Board of Directors.
In hindsight, maybe we should have given the building to the school in 2006 to make a parking lot. Trying to “keep it alive” has created at least as much, if not more, negative media attention for a vital regional institution.